Gherbod the Fleming

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Walter de Gherbaud ("Gherbod Flemming") held Cheshire after the Conquest. This is surprising to many who know a little about Cestrian History as most would say that the first Norman Earl was Hugh of Avranches.

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Kings: William I


Gherbod in stained glass at Chester Town Hall: a "fanciful" representation as there are no known contempory images of Gherbod.

Given a tough job in a difficult province - Chester was the last major city subdued by the Normans. Probably appointed Earl c.1070 (it is doubted whether he actually took up residence in Chester) he returned to Flanders where was either imprisoned in a dungeon or fought and was captured at the Battle of Cassel on the 22 Feb 1071. He may have died in the dungeon or he may have become a monk at Cluny. Gherbod's actual history is the least recorded of the Norman Earls of Chester, but has been the subject of much speculation.

  • Parents: unknown
  • Spouse: unknown
  • Children: None (?), the earldom went to Hugh of Avranches. One source (unverified) proposes: Gherbod II of Chester, b. ca. 1035 in Flanders, Belgium, d. 1101 in England

Trouble in the North

In 1067 two Norman Earls in the Welsh Marches, used the confusion caused by William's invasion, to extend their lands at the expense of English neighbours among whom were one Edric, soon to become known as 'Eadric the Wild'. In revenge for raids on his land Edric, in alliance with two Welsh princes, Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, devastated Herefordshire and eventually (1067) sacked the city of Hereford itself, before retreating back into the hills. The early 12th-century historian John of Worcester writes that Eadric the Wild was a son of one Ælfric, whom he identifies as a brother of Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia under King Æthelred the Unready. While five of Eadric Streona's brothers appear to attest witness-lists of King Æthelred's charters, no Ælfric makes a plausible candidate for identification with a brother of the ealdorman.It is possible that Ælfric was not a brother but a nephew of the ealdorman. If so, Eadric (the Wild) would belong to the same generation as his cousin Siward son of Æthelgar, who was himself a grandson of Eadric Streona

Then, in 1069, the late King Harold's sons, who were based in Ireland, raided the west country for a second time. Unfortunately for them they met defeat at the hands of Earl Brian of Penthievre, and fled back to Ireland. At the same time Edric the Wild and his Welsh allies burst out from their fastness in the hills and took Shrewsbury before moving on to Chester. William had to leave them to their own devices as he had his hand's full dealing with an uprising in Northumberland lead by the English Earl of Northumberland Morcar and his brother Earl Edwin of Mercia, supported by the Danish king, Swein Esthrithson, who also had a claim to the English throne.

  • The Conqueror had now only to gather in what was still left to conquer. But, as military exploits, none are more memorable than the winter marches which put William into full possession of England. The lands beyond Tees still held out; in January 1070 he set forth to subdue them. The Earls Waltheof and Gospatric made their submission, Waltheof in person, Gospatric by proxy. William restored both of them to their earldoms, and received Waltheof to his highest favour, giving him his niece Judith in marriage. But he systematically wasted the land, as he had wasted Yorkshire. He then returned to York, and thence set forth to subdue the last city and shire that held out. A fearful march led him to the one remaining fragment of free England, the unconquered land of Chester. We know not how Chester fell; but the land was not won without fighting, and a frightful harrying was the punishment. In all this we see a distinct stage of moral downfall in the character of the Conqueror. Yet it is thoroughly characteristic. All is calm, deliberate, politic. William will have no more revolts, and he will at any cost make the land incapable of revolt. Yet, as ever, there is no blood shed save in battle. If men died of hunger, that was not William’s doing; nay, charitable people like Abbot Æthelwig of Evesham might do what they could to help the sufferers. But the lawful king, kept so long out of his kingdom, would, at whatever price, be king over the whole land. And the great harrying of the northern shires was the price paid for William’s kingship over them. - E. A. Freeman William the Conqueror

The Norman Conquest was not over by the end of the Battle of Senlac Hill and William I spent much of the next five years countering English resistance and dealing with incursions from outside. He employed four main methods:

  • paying off invaders,
  • devastation,
  • the construction of castles,
  • less often, treaties

By the spring of 1070, having secured the submission of Waltheof and Gospatric in Northumbria, and driven Edgar the Outlaw and his remaining supporters back to Scotland, William the Conqueror returned to Mercia, where he based himself at Chester and crushed all remaining resistance in the area before returning to the south which had been raided by a Danish fleet. At times William's own troops were close to revolt as when William set out across the Pennines, in "rain and hail", to deal with "the Welsh and the men of Chester":

  • The men of Anjou, Brittany, and Maine loudly complained that they were grievously burdened with intolerable duties, and repeatedly asked the king to discharge them from his service... He continued on the venture he had so boldly undertaken, commanded his faithful troops to follow him, and counted any who chose to desert him as idle cowards and weaklings... he pushed on with determination along a road no horseman had attempted before ... The king himself, remarkably sure-footed, led the foot-soldiers, readily helping them with his own hands when they were in difficulties. So at last he brought his army safely to Chester and suppressed all risings throughout Mercia with royal power. He built a castle at Chester and another at Stafford ... Then going on to Salisbury he distributed lavish rewards to the soldiers for all they had endured, praised those who had shown prowess, and discharged them with warm thanks. But in his anger he kept back those who had wished to desert him for forty days after the departure of their comrades, and in this way punished a crime that had deserved far more. - Orderic Vitalis

Orderic was a near contempory chronicler, having been born on 16 February 1075 in Atcham, Shropshire, England, the eldest son of a French priest, Odelerius of Orléans, who had entered the service of Roger de Montgomery, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, and had received from his patron a chapel there. Orderic become a monk and his first literary efforts were a continuation and revision of William of Jumièges' Gesta normannorum ducum, a broad history of the Normans and their dukes from the founding of Normandy, which Orderic carried forward into the early twelfth century. He also added information about earlier periods from other sources, for example William of Poitiers' Gesta Guillelmi, and included information not found elsewhere. As Orderic used Norman sources but wrote from an English perspective, his account of the Norman Conquest is balanced, he is sympathetic to both sides.

Orderic is not a perfect historian as he does get some dates slightly wrong, but he is generally considered a reliable source and would have had access to people a little older than himself who would have first-hand knowledge of the events following the Norman Conquest. He has no reason to make Gherbod up.

Trouble in the South

At this time, Sweyn II of Denmark arrived in person to take command his fleet and renounced the earlier agreement to withdraw, sending troops into the Fens to join forces with English rebels led by Hereward the Wake, who were based on the Isle of Ely. Soon, however, Sweyn accepted a further payment of Danegeld from William and returned home (Hereward had apparently paid him too - so the Danes did quite well out of the expedition).

The only way that William could hold onto his conquest was through a policy of devastation and other extreme measures. William's strategy, implemented during the winter of 1069–1070 (he spent Christmas 1069 in York), has been described by William E. Kapelle and some other modern scholars as an act of genocide. Contemporary biographers of William also considered it to be his cruelest act and a stain upon his soul.

  • despoiling and laying waste the shire withal; whilst the fleet lay all the winter in the Humber, where the king could not come at them. The king was in York on Christmas Day, and so all the winter on land - 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' (Manuscript D)
  • Nowhere else had William shown such cruelty. Shamefully he succumbed to this vice, for he made no effort to restrain his fury and punished the innocent with the guilty. In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance. In consequence so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless populace, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger. My narrative has frequently had occasion to praise William, but for this act which condemned the innocent and the guilty alike to die by slow starvation I cannot commend him. God will punish him. - Orderic Vitalis
  • So great a famine prevailed that men, compelled by hunger, devoured human flesh, that of horses, dogs, and cats, and whatever custom abhors; others sold themselves to perpetual slavery, so that they might in any way preserve their wretched existence; others, while about to go into exile from their country, fell down in the middle of their journey and gave up the ghost. It was horrific to behold human corpses decaying in the houses, the streets, and the roads, swarming with worms, while they were consuming in corruption with an abominable stench. For no one was left to bury them in the earth, all being cut off either by the sword or by famine. Meanwhile, the land being thus deprived of any one to cultivate it for nine years, an extensive solitude prevailed all around. There was no village inhabited between York and Durham; they became lurking places to wild beasts and robbers, and were a great dread to travellers. - Symeon of Durham ('Historia Regum')
  • The resources of a province, once flourishing, and the nurse of tyrants, were cut off by fire, slaughter and devastation; the ground, for more than sixty miles, totally uncultivated and unproductive, remains bare even to the present day. Should any stranger now see it, he laments over the once magnificent cities! the towers threatening heaven itself with their loftiness; the fields abundant in pasturage and watered with rivers: and if any ancient remains, he knows it no longer. - William of Malmesbury

The effect of this was that that many would support any other claimant to the English throne or failing that would leave the country completely. Orderic Vitalis tells it as follows:

  • And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed. Some sent to Swegn, King of Denmark, and urged him to lay claim to the kingdom of England which his ancestors Swegn and Cnut had won by the sword. Others fled into voluntary exile so that they might either find in banishment freedom from the Normans or secure foreign help and come back to fight a war of vengeance. Some of them who were still in the flower of youth travelled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexius, Emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility.

By 1070 Eadric the Wild had made peace with William and in 1072 went with him on the invasion of Scotland. The Scottish king Malcolm Canmore (Máel Coluim) met William at Abernethy and, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle "became his man", handed over his eldest son Donnchad as a hostage and arranged peace between William and Edgar of Mercia. Accepting the overlordship of the king of the English was nothing new as previous Scots kings had done so without result and so the agreement with the English king was followed by further raids into Northumbria. In 1080, William sent his son Robert Curthose north with an army. Malcolm again made peace, but this time kept it for over a decade.

Walter de Gherbaud

Identified as a centre of disaffection and potential further revolt, Chester was dealt with severely. By 1071, the value of recoverable taxes had reduced to £30 and Chester was described as 'greatly wasted'. Of 487 houses standing in 1066, 205 had been lost and were perhaps not rebuilt before 1086. The increase in the taxation of the city under Earl Hugh to £70 and a mark of gold (about its pre-conquest level) may indicate more burdensome exactions rather than returning prosperity.

Following this violent consolidation of the Norman Conquest, Chester was held by Walter de Gherbaud (Gherbaud the Flemming), avoué of the Abbey of St Bertin in Flanders. Confusingly, someone name Gherbaud (variously spelt Gherbod or Gerbod) appears in various charters of St Bertin from years 975 until 1096. There appear to have been at least one Gherbod the Monk and at least one Gherbod the advocate. Both Gherbod's family and his eventual fate are a source of considerable confusion and much debate. There is some evidence that Gherbod fought at Hastings in the "Roll of Dives".

There is some evidence that Gerbod the Fleming had a sister Gundred. The relationship is said to be evidenced by both Orderic Vitalis:

  • "... et Guillelmo de Guarenna qui Gundredam sororem Gherbodi coniugem habebat ..." OV Book iv (2: 264)

and by the chronicle of Hyde abbey:

  • "Quo tempore comes Cistrensis decessit Gerbodo, frater Gundradæ comitissæ, Flandriamque veniens, inimicorum præventus insidiis miserabiliter periit." (Chron. Monast. Hyde, 296)).

However there is much dispute as to who the sister married and whether, if at all, Gherbod was related to William I. Decisive negative evidence as to a relationship with William, seems to exist as a letter from Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, to king Henry I, in which Anselm refuses to condone the marriage of Gundreda's son (William de Warenne) to a daughter of the king, because they were related in the fourth generation on one side and the sixth generation on the other:

  • "Quærit consilium celsitudo vestra quid sibi faciendum sit de hoc quia pacta est filiam suam dare Guillelmo de Vuarenne; cum ipse et filia vestra ex una parte sint cognati in quarta generatione, et ex altera in sexta." Anselm, Epistolæ, iv, 84, PL 159: 245].

Had Gundreda been a daughter of Matilda, then she would be a sister (or half-sister) of Henry, making the betrothed first-cousins, and Anslem would have had better grounds for objection.

The Complete Peerage, vol.3, p.164, states that Gerbod was made Earl of Chester "early in 1070", but even this date has been disputed. According to Orderic Vitalis, Gerbod was "continually molested by the English and Welsh alike". He returned to Flanders where (according to some sources) he fought and was captured at the Battle of Cassel on the 22 Feb 1071.

In Oderic's own words:

  • Cestram et comitatum eius Gherbodo Flandrensi iamdudum rex dederat; qui magna ibi et difficilia tam ab Anglis quam a Gualis aduersantibus pertulerat. Deinde legatione coactus suorum quos in Flandria dimiserat, et quibus hæreditarium honorem suum commiserat; eundi citoque redeundi licentiam a rege acceperat, sed ibi aduersa illaqueatus fortuna in manus inimicorum inciderat, et in uinculis cohercitus mundanaque felicitate priuatus, longæ miseriae trenos depromere didicerat. Interea rex Cestrensem consulatum Hugoni de Abrincis filio Ricardi cognomento Goz concessit...

William I's own relations with Flanders became complicated, when his father-in-law, Count Baldwin V of Flanders, had died in 1067. From 1060 to his death, Baldwin V had acted as regent to his young nephew, King Philip I of France. From 1067 the new count of Flanders was Baldwin V's son, Baldwin VI. He died three years later, and was succeeded, by fifteen year old,_Count of Flanders Arnulf III ("The Hapless"). The true power in Flanders at this time was Arnulf's mother, Richildis of Hainault. However, her oppressive government led to rebellion and the rebels invited Richildis' late husband's brother, Robert 'the Frisian', to invade Flanders. King Philip entered the contest on behalf of Arnulf, and matters came to a head at the Battle of Cassel on 22nd February 1071.

  • Robert came there and slew Arnulf his kinsman and Earl William, and put the king to flight, and slew many thousands of his men - 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' (Manuscript D)

According Gilbert of Mons (c. 1150 – 1225) it was Gherbod himself who killed the c.16 year-old Arnulf III in battle. Gilbert probably wrote his chronicle in 1195-6, well over a hundred years after the Battle of Cassel. King Philip eventually made peace with Robert, who became count of Flanders (Robert I).

  • But mutual and lasting hostility arose between the Normans and Flemings.. - Orderic Vitalis

Both Chester Castle and surrounding districts were given (1071) by the king to Hugh of Avranches. A footnote in Gerald of Wales tells it thus:

  • "The first earl of Chester after the Norman conquest, was Gherbod, a Fleming, who, having obtained leave from king William to go into Flanders for the purpose of arranging some family concerns, was taken and detained a prisoner by his enemies; upon which the conqueror bestowed the earldom of Chester on Hugh de Abrincis or of Avranches, "to hold as freely by the sword, as the king himself did England by the crown."

In other words Hugh (apparently in his early 30's) has just been created a Palatine ruler with no need to obey any law from London other than that of treason. Cheshire henceforth had its own parliament, consisting of barons of the county, and was not represented in the parliament of England until 1541, while it retained some of its special privileges until 1830 (when the palatine court was finally abolished by the Law Terms Act 1830). Nowadays the earldom of Chester is traditionally vested in the sovereign's eldest son upon his crowning as Prince of Wales.

What Happened to Gherbaud?

What happened to Gherbaud? - did he simply get left in a dungeon to rot? Well, this is not at all clear. One source gives Gherbod "The Fleming", Earl of Chester, being born around 1010 in Flanders, Belgium, as dying around 1071. The complication is that this source gives his children as:

  • Gherbod II of Chester, b. ca. 1035 in Flanders, Belgium, and,
  • Hugh de A'Vranches, b. ca. 1040

That Gherbod and Hugh were father and son seems very unlikely, although many "amateur" genealogies reproduce this data. The conventional wisdom is that Hugh was the son of Richard Goz, Viscount of Avranches, in the far southwest of Normandy, and inherited from his father a large estate not just in the Avranchin but scattered throughout western Normandy. Now Hugh cannot be both the younger son and nephew of Walter! And who is the mysterious Gherbod II? One source goes on to add that Gherbod II dies in 1101 in England, but not before he becomes the father of Ranulph de Mechines, Earl of Chester, born around 1065, who marries Lucy de Mechines (given in some sources as the daughter of Hugh de A'Vranches - hence Ranulph marries his cousin). Ranulph and Lucy go on to produce Ranulph "De Gernon," also Earl of Chester.

The chronicle of Hyde Abbey simply mentions the dearh of Gerbod with no mention of any role at the Battle of Cassel.

  • Quo tempore Comes Cistrensis decessit Gerbodo, frater Gondradæ Comitissæ, Flandriamque veniens, inimicorum præventus insidiis miserabiliter periit. (At this time Gerbod the Earl of Chester died, the brother of the Countess Gundred; coming into Flanders he was ambushed by his enemies and perished miserably.)

The chronicle of St Hubert's Abbey in the Ardennes and the chronicle of Gilbert of Mons (chronicle of Hainaut) both have a Gherbod at the battle of Cassel playing the important role of being the slayer of Arnulf III of Flanders ("with his own hands"). According to both these sources Ghebod went in penitence to the Pope in Rome. While he was initially sentenced to have his hands cut off, he was pardoned "because of his steadfastness", and sent instead to the abbot of Cluny, who made him a monk, and afterwards he was distinguished by good works and religion in the church of Cluny. A typical version reads:

  • Cecidit eciam Arnulphus, justus Flandrie heres, et a quodam homine suo ligio, Gerbodone nomine, interfectus fuit .. De Gerbodone, qui dominum suum Arnulphum manibus propriis interfecit, preter mittendum non est quod ille penitentia ductus, Romam adiens pedibus summi pontificis se prostravit confitens tanti sceleris peccatum. Ad hec dominus papa cuidam coquo suo manifeste indixit et eum foras induceret, eique manus quibus dominum suum interfecerat, abscinderet. Injunxit autem ei secretius ut si ad extensionem ictus manus illius trepidarent, illas ei abscinderet continuo; si non trepidarent, illum ad se sanum reduceret. Ductus vero Gerbodo ad supplicium, stetit manibus immotis et nequaquam trepidantibus. Quod videns coquus illum ad dominum papam reduxit. Dominus papa illi injunxit titulo penitentie ut ad abbatem Cluniacensem reverteretur, et ejus preceptis obediret. Cujus intentionem bonam ipse abbas percipiens, illum in monachum ordinavit; qui postea operibus bonis et religione in Cluniacensi ecclesia claruit.

So allowing for all the confusion here, we have Gherbod (who some would have related to William) killing Arnulf. At the time there seems to have been a fairly clear custom of not killing the other side's knights, leaders etc. (whether for chivalric reasons or simply to collect ransoms). It's possible that Gherbod was a bit of an embarrassment after Cassel and so his departure to a monastery would have been convenient. Of course, Gherbod was quite a common name so this might not be the same Gherbod at all. Cassel took place in February 1071 and the earliest records for Hugh of Avranches make him active as earl in 1071.

So there are two possible fates for Gherbod:

  • a long slow death in a dungeon
  • banishment to a monastery after Cassel


How much did the Normans know about the relative wealth of the parts of England prior to the invasion? It must have been clear that the House of Leofric was rich, and that Chester was a prize possession, if a difficult one to hold. Hugh of Avranches (or Hugh's father - Richard le Goz) had in part bankrolled William's invasion of England (providing either 30 or 60 ships, depending on the source), and while Hugh probably did not fight at Senlac Hill (called Hastings by some), Hugh (or his father) was trusted (Hugh was aged 19) to stay behind and govern Normandy. The historical record is remarkably scant about the true facts, which perhaps indicates a convenient forgetfulness about just how William raised and funded his invasion force.

In many ways Gherbod's fate (either the dungeon or the cloister) seems very convenient for Hugh, and indirectly for William. Hugh gets Chester, a city closely associated with Harold, and the power to govern freely and set his own laws. There is nearby Wales, both a threat and an opportunity for further conquest. One might suspect that William has taken a potential rival in Hugh and made him an "offer he could not refuse" - the riches of Leofric, while placing him far away from potential revolt in Normandy. Of course, in order to do this Gherbod needs to be out of the way.

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